Monday, February 08, 2016

William Ard, James Ellroy, and elements of crime fiction style

"She said eight o'clock in the lobby. She said bring the hundred with me, in cash. She said good-bye."
*
"Clouds imploded. Buildings weaved. People blipped."
=======
One of those passages is from James Ellroy, the other is fifty years older, but the cadences are similar, and if you don't think cadence is important, you've never read Ellroy, at least not The Cold Six Thousand, from which the second of the passages is taken.

The first is from William Ard's 1952 novel The Perfect Frame and, two books into my career as an Ard man, I begin to realize that for all the trouble he had coming up with strong endings, the man had style. His ten hard-boiled novels about P.I. Timothy Dane appeared in the 1950s, the years when Ellroy was growing from toddlerhood into early adolescence and, while I have no idea whether Ellroy read Ard, I have no doubt that he imbibed something of the way people spoke and wrote back then.

Style is a funny thing; style to me can be mere showing off to you. And it's elusive. Dashiell Hammett was the greatest of all crime writers, but what constitutes the Hammett style? 

While you ponder that unanswerable question, try these easier ones: What is style? Is good prose style necessary to good writing? Are the two synonymous?  Who are the most distinctive stylists in crime fiction? What's distinctive about their style, and what does that style add to their stories?

(By coincidence, Dana King discusses style this week at his One Bite at a Time blog. Have a stylish day.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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32 Comments:

Blogger seana graham said...

Who else writing today was influenced by the terse Ard sort of style besides Ellroy?

February 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Many crime writers have tried that terse style, and the introduction to the Ard twofer that includes The Perfect Frame claims John O'Hara as an influence on Ard. Paul Cain wrote something like that terse style in the 1930s, but there's something more specific to what I see in Ard in in The Cold Six Thousand. I haven't yet figured out what it is, though.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it's not the cadence of the Ard passage that reminded me of Ellroy, it's also the repetition. I could find bits from Ellroy, especially from The COld Six Thousand and American Tabloid that are even more Ard-like, but I remembered that one because I had just started rereading The Cold Six Thousand, and I found that I had noted the passage on a previous reading.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

I haven't read Ard and haven't read enough Ellroy to really have anything to contribute on that, but I do find Ellroy's prose distinct from his contemporaries.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana: Ard really is little-remembered. I had not heard of him until just before last year's Bouchercon, when Kevin Burton Smith thought about discussing him on our panel. This is a bit of a puzzle, as the two Ard novels I've read are better than some of the other stuff that has been reprinted in recent years. I would not mind talking about Ard on a future version of the panel

If The Cold Six Thousand or American Tabloid are among the Ellroy you've read or even flipped through, you'll recognize that style, not just terse, but rhythmic. One remembers how they sound, how they feel (even if the sound and feeling drives one nuts).

February 08, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Yes, I love Ellroy, as a stylist and even as a public performer, somewhat against my better judgment in the latter case. He is musical in his prose and it's really an achievement.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ard is not like that from beginning to end, but that passage was a pleasant surprise in a book I was enjoying. I probably ought to break up my Ard jones with a book by a different author, but I may go ahead and read Ard's .38 instead.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Oh, go for it. In reading in my experience, way leads on to way and sometimes we never get back.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I have some especially compelling alternatives, including Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne. I read the first 100 or so pages in French, with the help of a French dictionary I put on my Kindle. (Ease of that dictionary's use constitutes the only advantage that e-readers enjoy when it comes to the experience.

Anyhow, that got to be a bit much for late-night reading, so I have resumed reading my English copy. So it's English by night, French by day for me.

February 08, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Now you're just bragging.

Just kidding. French by day, English by night sounds perfect.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, bragging just a little. But I have noticed that my sporadic attempts to read fiction in French inevitably come to nothing, but with history and essays in social science, I can make excellent headway. I always attribute this to the clarity of the author's style.

English by day, French when the sun goes down would sound better, though.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Stylistically speaking, of course.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

I am once again late to the party but I'm delighted to see this discussion. Paraphrasing Chandler, style may be the most durable element of writing. The plot elements that make up The Big Sleep (back-room pornography, Rusty Regan’s involvement with the IRA when it was pretty much an above-ground movement) are gone and might have to be explained to readers who lack the history to understand the context. The writing is what lives on. Style is what separates writers in the astute reader’s mind.

Thanks for the link back to my post. Much appreciated.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

A great pleasure for this retired historian to know that you are reading Pirenne, Peter. A great historian not often read outside of History departments.

Perhaps I may add a more general comment on the post. Dana mentions Chandler, and to make my point I have in mind P.G. Wodehouse, going on a tangent. A coincidence there is that the two of them attended the same very fine school, Dulwich College, on the fringe of London. Especially in their time, you would be very unlikely to leave DC without a good command of English, and possibly a complete mastery of it. I should say that mastery of the language is the key not to "good prose style", but to 'A good prose style'. That article is important. Mastery of the language is what enables you to play with it -- exactly what Wodehouse does. A consummately masterly piano technique is what allows a pianist to 'play with' the piano, what Horowitz did when he composed and played his arrangements, e.g., The Stars and Stripes Forever. It was mastery of the language that similarly enabled Wodehouse to write that a character "oiled around the door jamb". Or have Bertie drinking a "tissue restorer". A lot of this has been part of my speech since I read Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, blatant theft on my part. In that Horowitz arrangement, at one point he makes this percussion instrument sound exactly like a piccolo. Similarly, if you have mastery of the language, you can do anything with it. And you want to, for in this case mastery is the mother of invention and the source of boredom with the conventional. This is just off the cuff, but one crime writer I think of in these terms is the late and great Reginald Hill. John Lawton, also. I'm sure if I browsed my shelves I could spot a few more. Just a few.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, it just has a more romantic air, that's all. French by day, English by night conjures up comical images, though I hope the expatriate Englishman who has just commented will take no umbrage.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, style came up in my Hammett discussions with Julie Rivett and Richard Layman in Raleigh. (We met for a drink the day before and a discussion of Hammett that I enjoyed at least as much as I did the panel.)

Layman mentioned a Hammett remark to the effect that the moment he recognized he had a style, he was dead. That's for another discussion, but it may shed some light on why Chandler is easy to imitate (how good the imitation is is another matter) and Hammett bloody well impossible. Recently I have found myself imagining that Chandler both enjoyed the fun he was having with his extravagant similes but also, when they worked, making sure they were in keeping with the story of which they were a part. Check out th opening paragraph of "Bay City Blues," for example.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip: I am also on the final essay of Pirenne's "Medieval Cities." Francophone historians of the last century had a knack for turning archival research on a microscopic scale into exhilaratingly large-scale conclusions. Fernand Braudel did this, too, and that is one reason I find him and Pirenne so exciting to read. That sort of historical writing gives meaning to the world, I'd say.

It is almost incomprehensible that Wodehouse, one of the great masters of English prose, was so widely popular in his day. Discussions of Chandler's style often cite his education in England. (Less often cited is his reticence, bordering on prudery, in sexual matters. He was a Victorian in more than one respect.) I'm afraid I haven't read enough late Victorian writing to be able to accept or reject any connection between Chandler's prose style and his background.

Chandler's name is inevitably paired with that of Hammett, a self-educated grade-eight dropout whose mastery of English was, I would say off the top of my head, at least as great as Chandler's.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

Funny about what Hammett said about having a style. Elmore Leonard claimed he had no style--that his job was to be invisible to the reader--yet he's as easily recognized as any writer I know.

Chandler definitely had fun with his style. It didn't always work, but when it did it cemented his reputation forever. That line from "Bay City Blues" is a prime example: It must have been Friday because the fish smell from the Mansion House coffee-shop next door was strong enough to build a garage on.

It's also strong enough to get me to re-read that story. Thanks.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, that's the line I had in mind. "Strong enough to build a garage on"? Who the hell would think of that? It's a memorable line.

I wonder if Leonard had a particular set of his own stories in mind then he made that remark. His style is easily recognizable as his own, widely imitated by other crime writers, and occasionally obtrusive. What he imagined was a lack of style was, of course, itself a style.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Dana King said...

I agree. I'm a huge Leonard fan, but that comment about hiding from the reader...well, not if the reader is paying attention. Maybe he meant he makes no effort to interject a style into his writing. He writes, and that's how it comes out. Either way, it's great stuff, and it's obviously his.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: My own thoughts on Leonard are a mystery to me. I've enjoyed some of his work, but some of it strikes me as overly self-conscious, as in the grating references to movies in Riding the Rap. I also remember reading scenes that consisted virtually entirely of dialogue in, I think Get Shorty, but growing weary of the device quickly.

The mystery is that many crime writers whose work I like acknowledge a debt to Leonard or at least get compared to him: You, Charlie Stella, John McFetridge, Garbhan Downey, Declan Burje, Dietrich Kalteis, and maybe more who slip my minf at the moment.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe he just meant that he felt comfortable writing the way he did, once George V. Higgins did it first. And Higgins is another guy I don't get.

February 09, 2016  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

How could I take umbrage at a man who is reading Pirenne, Peter? But I must thank Seana for her "English by night" compliment. And just stylistically speaking, of course. (We know, don't we, Seana?)

Two quick responses, for I doubt if these topics are exactly gripping for most of your readers. First, I would say that the Francophone historians to whom you refer, Peter, did have a knack, and the knack was called Henri Pirenne. His influence on Marc Bloch, a very great historian and very great man, co-founder with Lucien Febvre of the Annales school, was huge, as it was on many. Most significant in historiography is that from Pirenne Bloch inherited the concept of 'la longue duree'. His The Historian's Craft is something of a sacred text in historiography, though it was never finished. One of the greatest heroes of the Resistance, and Jewish, Bloch was captured, personally tortured by Klaus Barbie, and murdered. He was 58. Barbie, of course, went on to work under protection for the U.S. and then West German intelligence services until he was found in Bolivia by the Klarsfelds. Had there been no Bloch, I doubt if there would have been Braudel or any of a host of others, by no means all Francophone.

I'm surprised by your surprise at Wodehouse's popularity. His heydays were in the 20s and 30s, also the heydays of playing with language, especially in the States, where he lived. In a number of Gershwin songs, you find Ira in his lyrics playing with the fashion for playing with language.

You mention late Victorian writing, but in the U.K. I think the early decades of the last century most revealing. The key may lie in the Forster Education Act of 1870. There are a number of ways in which the introduction of universal education in reading, writing and arithmetic was revolutionary, and following measures built upon this. Come the next century, and one can see the effect of this in literature and in the backgrounds of writers. In this regard, I think Hammett's leaving school must be seen in historical context. I don't know how education fared in Philadelphia and Baltimore in that time, but a work I read on schools in Brooklyn had me fascinated, and I wasn't expecting to be.

But then, I once went through a batch of English Language exam papers taken by school leavers at 15 in England in the 1930s. I very, very seriously doubt if any university graduate in English today, or any M.A., and few Ph.Ds, could pass those exams. That my saying so sounds like a wild assertion makes me regret the more that those papers got lost in moving to Canada. But I remember vividly looking at the first one and just gawping. The Copenhagen LCD dictum on educational standards promulgated in the early 70s put in reverse the developments that began just about a century before.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger seana graham said...

Always a pleasure to see you drop in, Philip. I'm way behind you and Peter on the history of history, but enjoy hearing you talk about it.

Peter, yes, I loved the Amanda Cross mysteries an it was partly for the way Heilbrun sneaked the politics of the university into a lighter mystery series.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, I have seen Pirenne cited as an influence on Braudel, and yes, I have read several of the essays in The Historian's Craft. The introduction to my edition includes an impressive mention of the effect that news of Bloch's murder had on French historians of the time.

I'm afraid I did not express myself clearly in the matter of Wodehouse's popularity. I meant that in this day and age, it's novel to think that such a masterful writer could also have been massively popular. And I know something about Wodehouse's theater work with Guy Bolton and, if I remember correctly, Jerome Kern.

With respect to declines in the quality of writing, I shall save my thoughts for memoirs of a copy editor's life. Carolyn Gold Heilbrun offers some interesting thoughts on the state of American university education in her Amanda Cross mysteries.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip: I can well imagine that the Annales historians would never have come up with the longue durée and the threefold time scale had Pirenne not made such a clear case for the persistence of Roman civilization through and well after the Germanic invasions.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana (and Philip, too, for that matter): I may make a post comparing the narrative structure of Pirenne's Mohammed and Charlemagne to that of a novel. He musters throughout the book a list of facts and arguments about matters such as Germanic coinage after the fall of Rome or the persistence of commerce after the barbarian conquests. The arguments are of interest in themselves, but, more than that, one knows that they are all in service of, and building to, Pirenne's larger thesis: that it was the Muslim conquests rather than the barbarian invasions that marked the end of Roman civilization.

Amanda Cross was positively acid-tongued on university politics and coddled academic radicals. She could be positively bracing on those subjects.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I mentioned a "Declan Burje" above. For the convenience of the man's prospective readers (may their number increase!), that should be Declan Burke.

February 10, 2016  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Thank you for your kind words, Seana. I drop in rarely these days, but you have always put the fizz in my gin.

I'll look forward to that mooted post, Peter. Indeed, at present I should welcome any intelligent commentary on Pirenne accessible to the general reader. Why? His thesis is predominantly about economics, particularly trade routes -- it is not about religion or politics. But there raises its ugly head once again my bete noire (well, one of 'em): the semi-educated. And a Ph.D. may be semi-educated. Between that lot and those simply devious liars (e.g., Irving and the 'revisionists'), we now have Pirenne being cited as a warning against 'The Great Islamic Invasion'. Anything, direct or indirect, that acts as a corrective is to be welcomed. If Pirenne may be distorted for political purposes, so too may any part of the great historiographical tradition which followed upon his work.

February 11, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One could hold off the anti-Islamic slander by noting Pirenne's gall in suggesting that without Mohammed, Charlemagne would have been inconceivable. And you just know all those braying critics know all about Charlemagne.

February 11, 2016  
Anonymous Jim Nesbitt said...

Style is a very important element of telling a good story, but needs to be driving that story in a seamless way and not be a gaudy distraction that screams 'look at me showing off my writer skills.' Style gives you voice. And it gives your story a rhythm and pace. Done well, that voice and that rhythm pops up in the reader's brainpan. Done poorly, it distracts the readers attention.

February 13, 2016  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have no comprehensive theory of style. Sure, it should serve the story, but sometimes, if the author is gifted enough, a bit of showing off won't hurt. Chandler did it sometimes, and some would say James Ellroy used to as well. But not everyone ought to try it.

February 14, 2016  

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